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The fight Tyrell Dueck couldn't win

By Michelle Shephard Toronto Star Staff Reporter July 3, 1999 -- Page 1

It's April and Michael Culbert is talking about Tyrell Dueck in his ornately decorated office at the controversial Tijuana cancer clinic where the young Canadian was being treated.

"If the boy dies, it'll be blamed on something we did. If he lives, it'll be credited to the treatment he received before all this court nonsense," said the vice-president of the American Biologics Clinic.

Shaking the gold bracelets that dripped off his wrists, Culbert smirked when asked, ``Do you think all the media attention at the clinic is disturbing Tyrell or other patients?'' ``We didn't ask for this, we didn't solicit this, we didn't know the Dueck family from a hole in the wall,'' he said. ``But all this attention is publicity you just can't buy.''

Cancer killed Tyrell Dueck.

Not the Saskatchewan government, not the Tijuana clinic where he spent three weeks, not the media who focused on him, and not his parents.

The only villain in the story of the sweet, soft-spoken 13-year-old Canadian boy who died Wednesday night was his untreated osteosarcoma, diagnosed following his Oct. 1 birthday last year.

Despite Tyrell's obvious killer, he was given no weapons with which to fight.

When diagnosed, the doctors' advice was straightforward: His cancer was aggressive and needed to be fought immediately with rounds of chemotherapy and an amputation of his right leg from the knee down.

If he complied with this treatment, he had a 65-per-cent chance of survival.

To a teenager, this prospect may have loomed more devastating than death itself. Standing firmly behind him were his evangelical Christian parents and their church, who balked at such treatment.

Enter the American Biologics Clinic - a Mexican centre where amputations are replaced by fruit breakfasts and chemotherapy by shark cartilage and apricot pit extracts.

Talk to any employee at the clinic and the philosophy is clear: It's ``us'' against ``them''; the ``alternative'' fighting the ``establishment.''

American Biologic's Culbert said the established medical community is consumed with taking patients' money using ``barbaric'' treatments.

Yet one week at the clinic costs a minimum of $6,000.

Tyrell wanted to go to the clinic. He was taken to court by Saskatchewan's social services department. He then underwent nearly two complete courses of chemotherapy until March 1, when he refused treatment for the second time. He skipped three appointments in March for tests to check whether the cancer had spread.

He went to court again. On March 18, Justice Allison Rothery found that Tyrell was not competent to make his own medical decisions. She said the boy was being influenced by his father, who believes that natural remedies and prayer can cure the illness.

She also upheld an earlier court order that gave the Saskatchewan government the power to make medical decisions on the boy's behalf.

One conversation with the Dueck family and the basis for Rothery's decision is clear: Tyrell could not act independently of his father.

However loving a father Tim Dueck is, he is also a proud man who makes it clear that no one in his family will speak without his approval.

By the time Tyrell returned to the hospital to resume treatment, doctors had devastating news: The cancer had spread to his lungs. Even with treatment, he now had only a 10-per-cent chance of survival, and doctors decided at that point not to force treatment on the boy.

The news was bittersweet for the family. Obviously devastated by the diagnosis, they also rejoiced over the fact that they were free to take their ill son thousands of kilometres away to a Mexican clinic, where they felt he would be cured.

The Tijuana clinic is set in the heart of the gritty border town.

Inside, a pungent medicinal, fruity smell fills the halls - likely from the laetril, an apricot pit extract that is banned in Canada since it has been proven to have no effect in fighting cancer.

When Tyrell was there, the clinic - which has been open since the mid-1970s - had dozens of patients. Over the years, it has seen more than 20,000 patients, many of them Canadian.

Tyrell spent most of his three weeks at the clinic lying on a bed in a large room on the ground-floor hospital wing.

Tim Dueck told reporters his son's colour had returned and he was feeling better. Sitting on his large bed, his trademark baseball cap at his side, Tyrell looked pale and drained.

An average of 879 children aged 14 and under are diagnosed with cancer each year in Canada and 176 die. Statistics show that while child cancer rates have jumped 25 per cent since 1970, the death rate has dropped 60 per cent.

Looking at Tyrell with a useless IV drip of apricot pits flowing into his body - knowing cancer raced throughout his body, his swollen leg stretched out in front of him - it was evident he was going to die.

Canadian doctors said he would likely die within a year.

He died 70 days after he returned home from Tijuana, where his family spent $65,000 on his treatment.

Nobody killed Tyrell Dueck.

Cancer took his life. It's just too bad he didn't get a real chance to fight it.

Tyrell Dueck

Editorial Page Toronto Star
July 3, 1999 

It is a tragedy that touches our hearts and tears at our sense of moral certitude.

Tyrell Dueck, the 13-year-old Saskatchewan boy who made headlines in March when he refused to allow doctors to amputate his cancerous leg, died Wednesday night.

It is wrenching to see one so young fall victim to this terrible disease. But Tyrell's story was made all the more tragic by the legal and ethical battles that surrounded his treatment.

Twice the courts ordered Tyrell's parents to allow him to undergo chemotherapy and surgery to halt the cancer that was spreading through his body. Both times the family refused, opting instead for prayer and herbal remedies and, finally, alternative therapies offered by a Mexican clinic.

The parents' advice was well-meaning but medically suspect. Tyrell was too well-behaved - too honourable in his own way - to question their judgment.

So he, too, fought the medical establishment. Would Tyrell be alive today if he and his parents had heeded the advice of the courts and their doctors? It's impossible to say. Sadly, modern medicine was not given a fair chance.

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